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Vikings, S01E05: Raid; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vikings season 1Originally aired 31 March 2013
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Ciarán Donnelly

Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig, George Blagden, and Gabriel Byrne

My rating:  ★★★1/2 stars

Strong episode depicts events leading up to a showdown between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson.

Like most episodes of Vikings, “Raid” has a loose structure. The raid referred to by the title occurs early, but it’s hardly the centerpiece of the episode.  However, all the events of the episode are unified by a single idea—the preparations Ragnar and Earl Haraldson make for the showdown between them, which has now become inevitable.

Earl Haraldson makes the first move in the inexorable progress of the conflict, by leading a raid on Ragnar’s farm, slaughtering his livestock, killing anyone who gets in the way, and burning the house down. As Ragnar’s family escapes from the earl’s henchmen, the show uses the architecture of the set advantageously, and we viewers get a great opportunity to appreciate the set before it’s destroyed.

The episode displays some nice small touches. Ragnar is severely injured in the raid. When he steals one of the henchmen’s horses to escape, the one he chooses happens to be white. When he jumps off the horse to join his family, we catch a glimpse of the horse’s fur, which is now stained pink with Ragnar’s blood. The camera doesn’t linger; it’s a touch that casual viewers might miss. But it’s a bit that shows care by the people behind the scenes.

The raid sequence demonstrates why Lagertha has become a breakout character. She doesn’t so much as flinch when the raiders come. She grabs a shield, shoves her children behind her, and hands Athelstan an axe. When Ragnar returns from hunting and tells her to get the children out of there, she sneaks them to a nearby river. When an injured and bleeding Ragnar joins them, she immediately tends to his wounds and later cauterizes them herself, again without flinching. No one on the show is as competent and tough as Lagertha.

Athelstan proves an asset to the household, as well. Prior to the raid, he asks Ragnar for his freedom. Ragnar seems bored by the request because he knows Athelstan’s status makes no difference—free or slave, Athelstan has nowhere else to go. But Ragnar does grant the request. If he hadn’t, I wonder if Athelstan would have been so quick to save Ragnar’s life, as he does when Ragnar passes out into the river due to blood loss and nearly drowns. Much of the time, the series shows the influence of Viking culture on Athelstan. In this episode, we see hints of Athelstan’s influence on Ragnar, which will become of great significance in the third season. Regardless of who influences whom, the growing friendship between the two men is a highlight of the show.

One weakness of the episode comes in a scene that has Athelstan and the Vikings comparing gods and creation stories. The information about Viking beliefs is interesting and, certainly, is important to a series that explores the Viking way of life. But this talky segment seems out of place in this particular episode.

Not all of the episode’s talky scenes are out of place, however. Earl Haraldson and his wife, Siggy, have one where they discuss their daughter’s marriage. The script hints that it was Haraldson’s plan to choose a successor from among his men, who would then marry his daughter, Thyri. But the threat from Ragnar has altered that scheme, forcing the earl to marry his daughter to the powerful, but “old and ugly” (as Siggy describes him), Earl Bjarni (Trevor Cooper), who Haraldson claims is a cousin of King Horik. (This is the first indication we get that there is an organized Viking political structure beyond the local earl.  Horik will come to play a major role in future episodes.)

Haraldson wins Siggy to his side by expressing, without actually coming out and saying it, that he’s afraid for their future as he is getting older and has no heirs. I’ve been critical of Gabriel Byrne’s performance because it often seems that he feels like he’s above the material, as he did in Vampire Academy. Here, however, he has really good material—the script allows the performers to bring out the subtext—and Byrne gets a chance to show what he can do. Jessalyn Gilsig is an able scene partner, reacting with devastation mixed with the proud dignity her Siggy always shows as the wife of the earl.

The episode does a good job of showing the viewers Earl Haraldson’s perspective. The first scene depicts him blessing the newborn child of one of his followers. Here, we come to understand that this is the way he wants to live out the rest of his life—quietly, with the respect of his people, with no great challenges or changes. Ragnar’s attempt to alter the way things are done has completely upset the pattern of Haraldson’s life.

Rollo’s perspective is harder to understand. On the one hand, he intuits that, if Ragnar were in trouble, he would go to Floki’s, and he knows that the earl would have him, as Ragnar’s brother, rigorously watched. So, he sends their friend Torstein (Jefferson Hall) to find Ragnar instead of going himself. These actions imply that Rollo is not stupid. Yet, he struts into Thyri’s wedding, after he betrayed the earl at Ragnar’s trial in the previous episode, with seemingly no concern for his own welfare. This behavior suggests that Rollo is very stupid. The script gives us no indication as to Rollo’s motivation here. He does share a significant look with Siggy, but making goo-goo eyes at a pretty woman hardly seems like a good enough reason to put his life in danger, particularly when that woman is the wife of the man who wants to kill you. I would have liked just one line that would explain Rollo’s motivation. The scenes offer plenty of opportunities, but those go unused.

Siggy warns Rollo to leave Kattegat because the earl plans to get revenge for Rollo’s betrayal. But, Rollo doesn’t immediately heed her warning and sneak away. Instead, he wastes time making out with her and then swaggers out into the town square. I have to wonder if he was trying to make himself a target for Earl Haraldson. I can’t imagine what purpose this would serve, but I can think of no other explanation for his actions.

Naturally, Rollo gets captured by the earl’s men. Haraldson then proceeds to torture him to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Ragnar. The restraint the series displays in presenting the scene is a welcome change from other series, even basic cable ones like Vikings, that revel in the depiction of violent acts. Here, in the mercifully short scene, Rollo remains tight-lipped about what he knows, so the earl says that he will stop Rollo from being able to keep his mouth shut. We don’t see what happens next, just a short shot of blood dripping off the edge of the table. The show leaves it to the viewers to imagine the torture.

When the group at Floki’s house hears of Rollo’s capture, Floki turns into the Viking Admiral Ackbar and tells Ragnar that “it’s a trap.” Ragnar shoots Floki a look that suggests the needlessness of Floki’s statement. It’s the last of the communicative glimpses in this episode, which also includes the lustful glances between Rollo and Siggy, similarly lustful gazes between Torstein and Floki’s woman, Helga, and the look of confused apprehension that Athelstan gets when Lagertha first puts an axe in his hand. (Floki shows himself to be a very accommodating host when he allows Torstein to bed Helga. I would have liked some explanation as to whether this had to do with some Viking custom of, perhaps, hospitality or friendship, or if this was just another of Floki’s idiosyncrasies.)

Now that we’re far enough into the series that we know the characters and the conflicts, the show concentrates on telling its story, and we can appreciate the narrative and the world that Michael Hirst has created. This episode is a strong one, depicting the rising action, as narratologists would call it, of the conflict between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson, just before it peaks into a climax.

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